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Background



Opera in Britain has a complicated history. While opera in English was performed in the latter half of the 17th century, by the early 18th century Italian opera had become the predominant form and remained so for around two centuries with its main venue at the King's Theatre until the latter half of the 19th century when Covent Garden became the prime location. However, beginning with John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728,  opera in English in various forms was also performed during much of this time.  

The form of Gay's opera was Ballad Opera, spoken dialogue interspersed with songs and similar, superficially, to Singspiel or Opéra Comique  but with more emphasis on the, often satirical, dialogue and with the music using existing  tunes, usually popular ones of the day. Later in the 18th century, the fashion moved to pasticcio  where the music was taken from other composers, usually continental ones, and the dialogue and plots became more that of melodrama.  By the early 19th century, there was a greater direct use of continental operas but these were not only translated into English but adapted for the supposedly different British taste sometimes by a wholesale rewriting and often with extra dialogue, actors or scenes.

It is not surprising that when Weber was commissioned to compose the English opera Oberon for performance at Covent Garden in 1826, he wrote to his librettist, Planché, that "The English [opera] is more a drama with songs" and despaired of the use of  "principal actors who do not sing" and "the omission of music in the most important moments", all of which would make it "unfit for all other theatres in Europe".

The situation was further confused by the regulations governing British theatres and by the theatres' performance practices. Only a few theatres (Drury Lane, Covent Garden and, for the summer season, the Haymarket in London) had a licence to perform spoken drama.  The obvious way for other theatres to get round this prohibition, which was not lifted until 1843, was to add music.   Thus the boundary between such plays with music and English opera can easily become blurred and it can be difficult to categorise a piece.  

Theatres of the time advertised two, three or even four separate productions in an evening, firstly an opera or substantial play and then one or two short plays, often comedies or farces, but again with music included. Sometimes the additional item was a single act from an opera and sometimes two operas only were given in an evening.  

In 1834, just before the start of Victoria's reign, Samuel J. Arnold re-opened the Lyceum Theatre after a fire renaming it ' The English Opera House ' (EOH) and advertising it for "the presentation of English operas and the encouragement of indigenous talent". From the opening address of the theatre he clearly intended to stimulate a British genre to rival continental and most particularly Italian opera. However, the venture collapsed within a few years but others also tried over the next 30 years to sustain such ventures, although all were eventually to fail.  Arnold continued the practice of  showing several productions in an evening and some of what he produced was much in the style of the older English opera.  However, with the advent of Barnett's The Mountain Sylph at the EOH and  Balfe's The Siege of Rochelle for Bunn at Drury Lane, a new format became established which still, largely, used dialogue and song but in which the music, now for the most part original, held primacy with the use of non singing actors being greatly curtailed. Michael William Balfe was the mainstay of this period but other composers, notably John Barnett, Julius Benedict, Edward Loder, George Alexander Macfarren and William Vincent Wallace, also played a significant part. Many of their operas enjoyed initial success but few managed to hold the stage until the 20th century and even the few that did disappeared within the first few decades.  

After the Royal English Opera went bankrupt in 1866, there was a gap of 10 years without any major English opera.  During that time the Carl Rosa Company had been established but Rosa based his business primarily on touring Britain performing popular continental operas in English although he also included a few of the most popular English operas from the 1834-66 period.  However, in 1876, he staged a new English opera, Cowen's Pauline, and continued to commission occasional new English operas during the rest of his life.  There were also new English operas by companies other than Carl Rosa, such as Sullivan's Ivanhoe (1891) at D'Oyly Carte's short lived English Opera House and Stanford's Shamus O'Brien (1896) at the Opera Comique in London. Some composers, notably De Lara, Smyth and Stanford, resorted to continental opera houses in order to get their operas performed. However, as in the earlier era, these English operas sometimes had initial success but ultimately failed to gain a hold in the repertoire.  This period of English opera is discussed in great detail in Paul Rodmell's Opera in the British Isles, 1875-1918, (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013).

 


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